Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Spotting a Liar

Posted in advice, analysis, mental health by commorancy on June 15, 2019

pinocchio-knowsRecently, I’ve come across a book by Pamela Meyer entitled Liespotting: Proven techniques to Detect Deception released in 2010. Unlike Pinocchio, determining if a human is lying is quite a bit more complicated. While this is not the only book involving the topic of lie detection, let’s review Pamela Meyer’s visitation of this topic and of the act of deception itself. Let’s explore.

Lies and Deception

Let’s open this article by talking about Pamela’s TED talk. The difficulty I have with Pamela’s TED talk, which was apparently meant to simultaneously accompany and promote her book, was her seeming lack of expertise around this subject. Oh, she’s certainly knowledgeable enough… but is ‘enough’ really enough? It seems that her corporate America stint has led her to using these techniques to ferret out suspected liars from truth tellers. While that’s a noble reason to go into writing a book, it doesn’t make you an expert on the subject. I will fully admit now that I, like Pamela, am not an expert on the subject of behavioral psychology. Only a trained professional should be considered an expert on the art of detecting lies and detecting body language clues. I leave that to the experts. And even then, this art is so nuanced that detecting a lie could mean the difference between indigestion and actual lying.

The difficulty I have with Pamela’s book is that she focuses on trying to catch people in a lie whom are unwittingly using verbal and body cues that tell a different story. Her methodology suggests and implies that you’re planning to sit in a room with that person for potentially an hour (or longer) and have a conversation. Okay, so maybe ‘conversation’ isn’t the right word. Maybe the right word is ‘interrogation’. Or really, the correct word is probably ‘grill’.

If you’re planning on sitting in a room with a suspect grilling them for a lengthy period of time and asking all sorts of pointed questions, perhaps you can eventually catch someone in a slip-up or even multiple slip-ups. Even then, you have to question whether that ‘grilling’ methodology can really uncover a definitive measure of lying. Even more than this, is ‘grilling’ a practical methodology to employ in everyday use? Perhaps it is with your children if you’re trying to get to the bottom of who broke the lamp. But, would you ‘grill’ your friends? A co-worker? Your boss? No, this methodology is not in any way practical. Practicality aside…

In her TED talk, she discusses looking for ‘clusters’ during these question ‘sessions’. Seeing many telltale behaviors in a row may indicate deception. Though, is it really deception, is it fatigue, is it simply a person’s idiosyncracy, is it indigestion or is it, indeed…

Coercion?

The longer you sit with someone in a room interrogating them, the more it becomes about coercion. There’s a fine line here. While Pamela may not have called this aspect out, it’s a line that can easily be crossed when interrogating someone at length. At some point, you have to ask if the “cluster of mistakes” the person seems to be making is attributed to lying or coercion? With enough questions and time, you can actually get someone to confess to something they didn’t do simply because they wish to end the conversation and get out of there. Fatigue and boredom easily causes people to make mistakes, particularly when you ask the same questions over and over and over. Coercion, like lying, is part of human nature. In fact, I’d consider coercion to be the flip side of lying.

If you know the person and interact with them daily, you would know how they “normally” behave. You can then tell when they do, say or act in a way that’s somewhat off. If you’re talking to someone you don’t know, you have no idea of their personal behaviors… so how can you spot clusters of anything? Even then… if you think (and the key word here is “think”) you have spotted deception, what do you do?

Spotting a Lie…

is half the battle. The other half is what you choose to do with that information. Do you leave and go grab a pizza and beer and forget all about it? Or, do you confront the person? Confrontation is not likely to get you very far.

Pamela’s book seems geared towards brokering corporate business deals. I’m not sure exactly how useful her information would be in corporate business considering that the majority of corporate executives are not only pathological themselves, but many are also sociopaths and/or narcissists. Few CEOs actually care about their underlings. Additionally, C-Level anybody is not likely to sit long enough to be ‘grilled’. Perhaps they may be willing to submit to being ‘grilled’ under certain business conditions of duress. For example, if a CEO’s company is failing and there are millions of dollars at stake needed to revitalize a failing company, then they might be willing to sit through a grilling session by investors. However, they might not. So, again, I question out how useful her information might actually be in corporate America employed at an executive level?

Certainly, at corporate meetings and outings, executives put on a good face. But, don’t kid yourselves. They didn’t get to be a CEO without being some measure of ruthless and sociopathic. No, it also follows that most of these CEOs lie through their teeth when at corporate meetings. If they’re on a stage professing the latest greatest thing the company is offering, they’re simply telling you what you want to hear (and, more specifically, what they want you to hear). Personally, I’ve worked in many businesses where CEOs say things at a corporate events that, in fact, never take place. In fact, I already knew it was a lie the moment it was said. It’s not hard to spot when a CEO is lying to the company. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical here, but I don’t think so.

Another example, when the CFO takes the stage and begins is talk about finances, you can bet there’s information on his/her spreadsheet that’s not accurate, or indeed is not even there. This is the lie that corporate executives tell often. They want you to think the company is “on target”, is “doing well” and is “making money” even when things aren’t nearly that rosy. You simply cannot believe all of the “rah-rah” that corporate executives tell you at events. If you do, you’re extremely gullible. Nothing is EVER that rosy… or as another idiom goes, “There’s two sides to every coin.”

That not to say that all CEOs lie all of the time. But, they certainly are masters at withholding key information from the common folks in most organizations. Withholding key information is a lie, make no mistake. If a company insists on “transparency” in its business operations, you can bet that CEOs won’t apply transparency to their own business decisions. However, this is getting off into the deep end of the psychology of corporate business America. I could write a whole article, perhaps even a book, on this subject alone. For now, let’s move on.

Being Caught

You think you’ve caught someone in a lie? The question remains… what do you do with that information? Do you confront them? Do you walk away? Do you ask them for the truth? And, these are all questions, choices and decisions you’ll have to make for yourself. Knowing that someone is lying is entirely different from acting on that information. How do you act when you think someone is deceiving you? The answer to this question depends on where the lie happens.

If the lie is in your personal life and it involves a personal relationship, then only you can work it out with your partner. If your relationship is supposed to revolve around truth and trust, then it’s probably worth bringing it out into the open to discuss it.

If the lying involves a co-worker or boss at your company, then you have to make the decision how this affects your ongoing position at that company. If it’s a small lie that really doesn’t affect you personally, walk away and forget about it. If it’s a large lie that could easily jeopardize your position at the company, then you need to take steps to both protect yourself and distance yourself from that person. In this case, it’s worth having a sit-down with your manager and explain what you have uncovered and why you believe it’s a lie… bring proof if you can find it.

If it’s a lie that involves and may materially impact a business deal, this is difficult to offer a suggestion here as there are many forms of this which would require me to go off into an extremely long tangent and could significantly impact corporate legal agreements. In fact, maybe I’ll circle around to this topic and write an individual article involving corporate lying, legal contracts and business deals.

Deceit, Deception and Lying

With that said, I’d like to get into a little about the ‘whys’ of this topic and types of lies. Why do we lie? Two reasons: 1) To protect ourselves and/or 2) To protect someone else. Yes, that’s the primary reasons that we lie. Though, there is also a third category. The third type are those who are pathological. They lie because 1) they can and 2) because they find it fun.

Basically, there are two types of liars: 1) the ordinary liar and 2) the pathological liar. The “ordinary” liar is the person you’re most likely to meet in a lie. The ordinary liar is also more easy to spot. The pathological liar is less likely to be seen or caught. Don’t kid yourself, some co-workers are pathological liars… and these are the ones you need to completely avoid. Pathological liars will basically stop at no lie to get what they want. Many pathological liars are also ruthless sociopaths and/or narcissists, so don’t get in their way.

There are many types of deception, not just verbal lies. There is also deception by lack of information… or, what they aren’t telling you. Company executives are brilliant at this strategy. Withholding vital information from folks is the way they keep what they know limited. It’s also a way that many corporations choose to do business with customers. Lies sustain corporate America. In fact, you’ve probably been told a lie by someone selling you something… simply so you’ll buy that product or service. It’s not about what they are telling you, it’s about what they aren’t telling you.

Internally, companies also lie to employees. As an example, a company where you work may have rumors of “going public”. The executive team will not officially announce any information about this until it’s considered “official” and “unstoppable”. The difficulty I have with this process is that if I’ve been given ISO stock, I’m a stockholder. I should be kept informed of when or if the company chooses to IPO. Being left in the dark is not good for shareholders. Yes, this is a form of a lie. Withholding information from someone even if they have asked you pointed questions is lying.

Credentials and Lying

Here’s yet another type of deception… and it’s extremely prevalent in the self-help industry. Many people profess to have knowledge of things they do not. Again, Pamela Meyer is from a corporate business background. She does not have a medical or science degree. She can’t claim to have medical behavioral psychology training. Yet, here she is writing a book about this topic as though she does. Yes, she does carry a Ph.D. That means she has a doctorate of philosophy. That is not a medical degree… and even then, calling someone a ‘doctor’ who carries a Ph.D is dubious at best. The word ‘doctor’ is primarily reserved for those folks who are medically trained professionals and who carry, for example, a medical degree such as M.D., D.O. or even a D.D.S. These are folks who spent significant time not only in medical school, but have served at a hospital to solidify their medical training. For doctors licensed in psychology, that would be a Phys.D degree. Psychiatry is a totally different thing and is governed by professionals holding a Ph.D.

Carrying certain Ph.D. credentials in no way, by itself, qualifies you to write about psychological related subjects with authority or impunity. Sure, you can have an opinion on the subject matter, as we all do, but carrying a Ph.D doesn’t make you an expert. That would require medical training, and specifically, psychology related medical training.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t take some measure of psychology classes as part of her Ph.D program. In fact, I’m sure that her school’s degree program required psychology as part of its foundation class load. However, these college fundamental classes are simple basic introductory classes. These basic classes introduce you to the basics of psychology… such as terms and vocabulary with general purpose, but limited information. There’s nothing specifically introduced in these “basic” classes that would qualify anyone to be an expert covering the nuances of human behavior or teach them the detail needed to identify someone in a lie. These are all techniques that would most likely be taught in advanced behavioral psychology classes, usually only attended by students intending on graduating with a degree in and intending to practice behavioral psychology. Even then, you’d have to practice these techniques for years to actually be considered an ‘expert’.

That’s not to say that her time working in corporate America didn’t give her some valuable corporate life experience in this area. But, that still doesn’t indicate expertise in this field. And this is the key point I’m trying to make here. This article is not intended call out only Pamela Meyer. She’s used as a broader example here because she’s the most obvious example to call out. There are many forms of lying. Writing psychology and medical leaning books beyond your actual expertise level is considered disingenuous… or one might even say lying.

Even were she (or any other author writing about this topic) to have a Phys.D degree, I’d still want to understand exactly how an author had come to know this information (e.g., clinical work, working with the military, working with prisons, working with the police, etc). You know, show me years of training in and practice in this area. Even publishing journal articles, theses and dissertations in this area which have been accepted by medical publications would lend legitimacy to her ‘expertise’. Simply writing a book and having a TED talk doesn’t exactly qualify you as an ‘expert’. Though, maybe it does qualify you as an expert researcher.

Behaviors and Lying

One of the things Pamela does to solidify her credentials in her TED talk is open by discussing how “we all” perform these behaviors when we’re lying. That’s the perfect opening to get the audience to “relate to” you. After all as humans, we all occasionally lie. What’s more perfect than roping the audience in than with a blanket statement designed to make the audience immediately think she “knows what she’s talking about” simply because the information is “accessible”. Accessibility of information doesn’t make someone an expert. What she is, if anything, is articulate. Yes, Pamela is actually very articulate. However, being articulate, and I’m going to reiterate this once again, doesn’t make you an expert.

Expertise comes from training, research, publications and working in this specific area as your career choice for multiple years. She’s not a behavioral psychologist. Instead, she draws upon others works to help write her book… to flesh out those pesky details. This is typical of teachers and researchers and even journalists, not practitioners. This is the problem and the difference between the teaching profession and the doing profession. She’s a teacher, not a doer… so her advice in this area may or may not be helpful.

Lying is Rampant

One thing Pamela does get right is that lying is extremely common and seems to be more and more nonchalantly used today. We lie to our boyfriends and girlfriends. We lie to our spouses. We lie to our bosses. We even lie to our friends. The question isn’t that we lie, but to what degree. If the lies consist of the insignificant or “little white” variety, then these don’t matter.

The lies that matter are those that lose relationships, that tank businesses, that lose millions of dollars or even that cause someone to be killed. These are the lies that actually matter. Putting down the wrong information on the wrong patient chart may be unintentional, but it’s a lie that could get someone killed in a hospital. These are deceptions that where saying, doing or performing the wrong thing can get someone dead. Some might consider this a ‘mistake’, but I consider it a lie. It all depends on perspective.

What Pamela got wrong is that most lies don’t matter. Let me say that again. Most lies do not matter. What I mean is that if someone tells you they like your shoes, but in reality they’re hideously ugly, that’s a lie that is meant to help someone feel better. There’s nothing wrong in that. This is the ‘little white lie’.

Lying to a Walmart employee claiming you bought something there that you didn’t actually purchase at Walmart does monetary damage. Lying to an insurance company claiming damage or injury that doesn’t exist, that also causes monetary damage. Both of these actions are also called fraud. The lie is half the problem. The other half is proof of the lie. In Walmart’s case, if their computers were actually better than they are, they could look up the person’s recent purchase information and catch them in the lie. In the case of insurance fraud, there are private investigators.

And here’s another thing Pamela got wrong. Catching a person in the lie is enough. There’s no need to spend hours interrogating them as to “why”. We don’t need to know why. We just need to catch them in the lie. Hence, the need for private investigators who follow people claiming injury to insurance companies. The proof is catching them in the act, not spending time looking at body language and listening for verbal clues. Another phrase comes to mind, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” It’s true, we don’t have the time to spend hours sitting in a room trying to get to the bottom of a liar. We need to get the proof that they’re lying and that proof lies (pun intended) outside of the liar. Proof is what matters in a lie, not a confession. A confession is great IF you can get it, but the proof is what tells you the person is lying, not their words or actions.

In law enforcement, getting a confession seems to be the “holy grail” out of a perpetrator. However, there’s no need to get a confession if you have proof that the person was there and did whatever he/she claimed not to have done. Considering that crime scenes can easily become tainted and proof dismissed due to ‘technicalities’, a confession overrides that red tape problem. Red tape is there for a reason, but many times it allows acquittal of someone who is actually guilty. Of course, red tape has nothing to do with lying and everything to do with law and policy.

If the person chooses to tell the “truth” and “confess” to whatever they had been lying about, that’s great. Obtaining proof is the key, not spending hours waiting on someone to squirm in just the right way only offering a possible 50% success rate. With computers becoming faster and more powerful and able to store more and more data about each of us (some of it voluntarily posted on social media), lying about certain things (DNA tests to determine relationship) may become impossible.

As detection technologies evolve and become faster, smaller and more portable, determining such information as paternity may become as easy as a cotton swab to the mouth and in minutes you’ll have an answer.

Lying has never been a crime

This subject heading says it all. It’s not the lie that’s the crime. It’s whatever the lie is attempting to conceal that may or may not be a problem. For this reason, you won’t find laws on any books that ban lying. If any legislation was introduced that actually attempted to enforce telling the truth, it would be met with much consternation (and, at least in the US, would be against the fifth amendment of the constitution — which this amendment says you have the right not to incriminate yourself).

Pleading the fifth, in the US, means that you do not have to talk to anyone about anything. Simply saying, “I plead the fifth” stops all questions regarding whatever matter is under investigation… at least when talking to the authorities. In some cases, pleading the fifth may, at least in the public eyes, make you seem guilty. If you aren’t willing to talk, then it is assumed you have something to hide… perhaps something that implicates you, thus making you seem guilty.

In the US, the tenet is, “Innocent until PROVEN guilty.” This only holds for official courts of law. In the court of public opinion, “Guilty until proven innocent” reigns. In the court of public opinion, there is no proof needed. Once you are seen as guilty, you are always considered guilty.

In a criminal court of law, the burden of proof is typically measured as ‘reasonable doubt’. The word ‘reasonable’ being the key word. It doesn’t take 100% proof, it simply takes ‘reasonable’ proof. ‘Reasonable’ is intentionally left subjective and vague and is up to any specific jury to ascertain what they consider as ‘reasonable doubt’. Indeed, some juries are sometimes confounded by the word ‘reasonable’ and rightly so. What is ‘reasonable’? The word itself means “to reason” or “decide” or utilize any similar thought process. But, what does it mean in a court of law or in legal circles? Juries are never comprised of legal professionals. Instead, they are comprised of people not in the legal profession and usually not professionals who might significantly impact the prosecution’s case. Instead, legal counsel typically appoints jury members who do not appear biased in either direction (toward or against the defendant) and whose profession is not considered a ‘conflict of interest’.

Civil courts offer a different legal standard. In civil trials, the burden of proof is “preponderance of evidence”. In a way, ‘preponderance’ offers nearly the same vagueness as ‘reasonable’. Both are vague terms meant to be interpreted by the jury at hand. In both criminal and civil trials, these terms are intentionally so vague as to allow juries to effectively make up their own rules under “reasonable” and “preponderance” when deliberating. This allows juries the leeway to consider some evidence and dismiss other evidence. It also means that, for example, a jury has 25 pieces of evidence, but only 8 pieces are solid enough to consider. Simply doing the math, 8 solid pieces of evidence is well less than 50% of the evidence presented. Is eight really enough? If those 8 pieces basically put the person at the scene and also shows that the person’s DNA was found at the crime scene and also that they were there at the time in question, then ‘lack of reasonable doubt’ and sufficient ‘preponderance of evidence’ has been established. From here, the jury should convict on whatever counts are listed for that evidence.

Note that ‘preponderance of evidence’ is tantamount to a phrase that more or less means, ‘overwhelming’ or more simply ‘enough’. The ‘preponderance of evidence’ phrase implies looking for ‘more than enough’. With ‘reasonable doubt’, it implies the opposite. The jury should be looking for ‘reasonable doubt’ or ‘not enough evidence’ to convict. In civil cases, juries (or a judge) would need to look for ‘preponderance’ (or more than enough) evidence to convict. Both result in the same outcome, conviction or acquittal. It’s just that the way the jury is directed to act is slightly different based on the legal phrasing of the burden of proof.

What that all means is that the ‘laymen’ folks who are chosen for a jury typically are ignorant of laws and legal proceedings. They are there because they don’t have this knowledge. They can then remain impartial throughout the trial by reviewing all of the evidence presented in a ‘fair’ and ‘just’ method. Yes, they can even use some of the verbal and body cues of the defendant to determine if they ‘feel’ his body language is indicative of lying, which could sway their view of ‘preponderance’ or ‘reasonable’. In civil trials, juries are reminded to rule based on “preponderance of the evidence”. In criminal trials, juries must rule based on “reasonable doubt”.

What does this all mean? It means that in a court of law, while you could use some of these lie spotting techniques to determine whether a defendant is telling the truth, what makes the difference is the evidence presented. The evidence is what catches someone in a lie… particularly when they don’t confess.

For this reason, legal court proceedings require burden of proof for juries to ponder during deliberation… rather than using hunches, intuition or gut feelings.

Local Friendships

Back at home, we don’t have to judge our friends based on vague legal terms. Instead, we have to use our own critical thinking skills. This is where you can use and apply lie spotting techniques (which, if you have noticed, I have not included in this article intentionally), to spot a friend, co-worker or boss in a lie. Again, it’s up to you what to do with that information once you spot it.

If lying or telling the truth is an important concept for you, this article might not make you happy. You should understand that lies are everyday things told to us by even our closest friends. If you get worked up at the thought of someone lying to you, you should probably learn to relax more. Lies are something told by many people every day. If you’re a bit uptight at learning this, you might want to forget all about this article and go on with your life oblivious. After all, “ignorance is bliss”.

We don’t have to use juries or law books to judge our friends. We use our instincts and common sense. If you add in a little behavioral profiling (yes, it is a form of profiling) you may be able to determine if that leg twitch or nose itch or eye glance or finger motion is a telltale sign of lie. As I said, most lies are insignificant in the grander scheme. Learning to let these things go or, as another phrase goes, “don’t sweat the small stuff” will let you remain a happier person. Nothing in life is ever perfect. Nothing. Not relationships. Not people. Not actions. You have to expect that anyone around you will not always do things for your benefit, not even your spouse. You have to be willing to understand this and compromise by ignoring these lies.

If a lie is something you can’t ignore, particularly a life changing event (birth of a child), then that’s where you must stand up and take responsibility for your own actions… or confront someone about their actions.

↩︎

 

Advertisements

Gaslighting in the Workplace

Posted in advice, Employment, workplace by commorancy on April 10, 2019

Gaslighting is nothing new, but is a term that may be new to some. However, when it appears in the workplace, particularly from a boss, it can lead to exceedingly difficult workplace situations. Let’s explore.

Gaslighting and How To Recognize It!

Gaslighting is when a co-worker or boss says something on Monday and then says, “I never said that” on Tuesday. Effectively, it’s lying. Its saying one thing (or even making a promise), then claiming that thing was never said.

What’s the purpose of this behavior? To attempt to make you, the receiver, believe what they want you to believe and to avoid the ramifications of whatever it is they said earlier. Some claim it’s a form of manipulation or that it is used as control tactic to confuse. I personally believe it’s a way for that person to get out of trouble or avoid being held to a promise. It’s a self-centered way of thinking. While it might be used for manipulation purposes, I believe it’s more self-serving than it is to control another person. However, this behavior can be either intentional or inadvertent due to a medical condition. Either way, it’s a problem for you, the receiver.

Co-workers and Gaslighting

If you’re working with a gaslighting co-worker (non-management peer), the situation can be a bit more simple to handle. Simply request that you don’t work with that person. Most companies are willing to separate folks with personality conflicts to avoid HR issues, so request it. However, be sure to explain to your Human Resources team member that the person is gaslighting you regularly. Make sure they understand the severity of gaslighting (a form of lying) in the workplace and that it has no business in a professional working relationship. Lying in any form is an unacceptable practice, particularly when it comes from folks in positions of trust. It also brings in the issues of business ethics against this person.

Lying and trust are exact opposites. If the person is willing to lie to colleagues, what are they willing to do with clients? Point this out. However, if you do point this out to HR, be aware that they can confront that person about this behavior which might lead them back to you. This person, if charming and charismatic enough, may be able to lie their way out of it. So, you should be cautious and exercise your best judgement when considering reporting a person, particularly if the person is pathological.

Bosses and Gaslighting

Unfortunately, if the gaslighting is coming from your boss or your boss’s boss, it’s a whole lot more difficult to manage. You can’t exactly ask to be moved away from your boss without a whole lot of other difficulties. In fact, many times, there is only one boss who handles your type of position within the company. If you find it is your boss who pathologically gaslights you, you may need to consider moving on from that company as there may be no other choice if you wish to continue working in your chosen career.

Gaslighting and Toxicity

Any form of unethical behavior against another employee should immediately be a huge red flag for you. If you can spot this early, you can make your employment decision quickly. If, for example, you can spot a toxic situation within the first 1-3 months, you can justify to a new prospective employer that the job role wasn’t what was promised and you left of your own accord during the probation period. That’s true. Toxicity in the workplace never makes for a positive working environment. Part of the job is not only what you do for the company, but how others interact with you within that environment. If one doesn’t meet the other and it’s found to be a toxic workplace, then the job role did not meet an acceptable criteria for employment. This means that the job role wasn’t what was promised. It’s not just about what you do, it’s about the interactions with others within the environment.

Any workplace with toxic co-workers is never a positive place of employment and, thus, not what was promised in the interview and on the job description. The problem with toxicity in the workplace is that it’s not easy to spot quickly. It can take several months for it to manifest. Sometimes, it will only manifest after staff change roles. If you walk into a company with high turnover, you might find the first couple of months to be perfectly fine until a new manager is hired.

Interview Flags

You should also take cues from your on-site interview. Many interviews offer telltale signs of toxicity. It may not even be from the people in the room. It may be from the receptionist that you meet when you arrive. Listen carefully to conversations when you’re sitting in a lobby or interview room waiting for the next interviewer. If the environment is chaotic or the interviewers are disenchanted with their job role, walk away. You can even ask pointed, but subtle questions in the interview to the interviewer. For example:

  • “How long have you been with the company?” — Short stint? They can’t tell you enough about the company.
  • “Do you like your job?” — This should open the door for venting.
  • “Is there anything you might change about what you are doing?” — This will further open the door for venting.
  • “How long has this position been open?” — Jobs that have been open a long time may signal problems.

These are examples of pointed questions trying to draw out disenchantment from the employee. Employees who always remain positive about their work conditions and the workplace likely means the company is worth considering. Employees who vent and turn negative quickly likely indicates disenchantment with their position. You might want to reconsider. However, even questions like this aren’t definitive. If the employer directs their interviewers to remain positive no matter what, you won’t know about this policy until much later. Always be cautious in the interview room… but definitely use your question time to draw out possible disenchantment as discretely as possible. If an employee wants to vent about the conditions, let them. It’s a sure fire sign you probably don’t want to work there.

Once employed, your next stop might be…

HR Complaints

You may think that taking your complaint to the HR team is the best idea, particularly if it’s your boss who is gaslighting you. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The HR team works for the management team and this includes working for your boss. This means that your boss actually has more power with the HR team than you do as a non-management employee. Complaining to the HR team could also bring your boss’s wrath down upon you. In fact, the HR team may become complicit in your boss’s gaslighting (and unsavory) tactics, which may seem like both your boss and the HR team are ganging up against you. That view wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

If your boss is willing to lie to you, he or she is willing to lie to others, including the HR team. There’s ultimately no end to this person’s deceptive ways. This means that reporting your boss to HR could actually backfire on you. It could get you written up, placed on probation, have disciplinary action levied against you up to and including termination. There’s no end to what your boss could do to you if you report their behavior to HR. The HR team will backup your boss, not you.

If your boss or any management team member is gaslighting you, you should avoid complaining to HR. The only time you should make your way to HR is if it’s coming from a co-worker peer who is not in management. Non-management coworkers are the only people where HR doesn’t have a conflict of interest. For these folks, report away.

For management gaslighters, you’ll need to consider other options… such as employment elsewhere or a change in position (move to a different boss, preferably not under the same chain of command) or possibly legal action if the behavior is illegal.

Evaluating Management Power

If you do decide to complain to HR over a management team member, you need to consider that person’s power and support within the organization. Many of these gaslighters are not only gaslighting their own staff, they’re two-faced with their bosses. The problem is getting these people caught in their own web of lies and deceit. That can be a tall order as two-faced individuals attempt to establish strong trust with their bosses. Many times they succeed which can make it extremely difficult to break down that trust.

Unfortunately, many managers who are willing to gaslight you are also willing to do whatever it takes to point the blame elsewhere, perhaps even towards you. For example, I’ve had bosses who made dire mistakes and cost the company downtime and money regularly (at least once a week). Yet, when they end up in their weekly management meetings, the blame runs downhill. Their trust runs deep, so their bosses continue to believe their lies. Meaning, lies and deception keeps this manager employed with his underlings getting the blame (getting a few of them fired). That, or he lied and claimed it was a system error or blamed the crash on the developers or software.

This manager should have been fired at least 6-8 times over, yet each time he managed to worm his way out of the situation by either pointing blame at others or claiming system problems. I know full well it was his fat fingers that pulled the trigger and caused the outage (I saw the logs), yet this information never got to his manager in a way that required him to terminate this employee. He was considered “too valuable”. In fact, he wasn’t valuable at all. He was a severe liability to the company. Not only did he cause regular system outages, he was an HR nightmare making not only inappropriate comments in the workplace, he was completely tactless and had no people skills at all. He was definitely one of those folks who should have been considered dangerous, yet he was in a management position. He was even promoted several times!

What can you do about gaslighting?

This is a difficult question to answer. Depending on the situation, you have several options:

  1. If it’s coming from a non-management co-worker, report them to HR and your manager and ask to avoid contact with this person.
  2. If it’s coming from a management team member to whom you report, you have few options other than to quit and move on.
  3. If it’s coming from a lower management team member to whom you DO NOT report, report them to your immediate manager. Depending on your manager, this may go nowhere. Management typically supports other management regardless of how egregious another management member’s behavior.
  4. If it’s coming from an upper management or a company executive to whom you DO NOT report, again, you have few options. Reporting upper management or executive behavior is almost impossible to see action done. Though, you might be able to report the behavior to the Board of Directors if it’s egregious enough. Like the HR team, the Board of Directors is there to support the management team.. no matter their behaviors. If you choose to report, you’re likely to get no response from the Board of Directors as they’re likely not willing to confront that executive.

There may be other scenarios not listed here, so you’ll need to use your own best judgement whether or not to report the situation.

Company Therapists

You might be thinking you should use one of the company counselors to vent your frustrations. The trouble is, it’s possible that the counselor is obligated to report all findings to the HR team. If you wish to vent to a licensed therapist or psychiatric professional, do so you on your own dime. Choose your own therapist. Don’t use the company’s counselor hotline that’s part of the company perk system. You might find that your conversations have ended up in your personnel file.

Toxic / Hostile Workplace

If the corporate culture is such that it endorses gaslighting (and other inappropriate behaviors) and the company chooses to do nothing about it, then this is probably an ingrained corporate culture. You should consider this a severely toxic and unhealthy workplace. Depending on how you’re treated, it might even be considered hostile. The only choice you have is to exit this job and find another. Toxic corporate culture is becoming more and more common. Unfortunately, there is no one you can turn to in an organization when the corporate culture is this level of toxic, particularly at the upper management level. When the CEO, CFO, CTO and such executives know, don’t care and do nothing to rectify a toxic workplace, this is definitely the signal that you need to move on. You can’t change a toxic corporate culture, you can only get away from it.

Toxic workplaces may be difficult to recognize until you’ve been in the position for at least six months. This is one of those situations where you don’t want to leave the position at the 5 month mark because it will hurt your resume. It also means you’ll need to stick with your employment at this toxic company for at least 7 more months to reach the 1 year mark. Hopping to a new job at the 1 year mark is at least better (and more explainable) on a resume than hopping at 5 months.

This situation can be difficult, particularly if the job environment is highly toxic. Just try to make the best of the situation until you can reach your 1 year anniversary. If the situation is far too problematic to bare and the behavior is not only egregious, but illegal, you should contact a lawyer and consider…

Legal Action

The HR team’s number 1 job is to avoid employment related legal actions at all costs. This means that should you file a lawsuit against your company as a hostile workplace, you’ll be up against your HR team, the company’s legal team and the company’s executives. If you’re still employed when you file such an action, you might want to consider moving on quickly. The HR team (and your boss) will make your life a living hell during and after a lawsuit.

In other words, you shouldn’t consider legal action against a current employer for employment violations. Instead, you should plan to leave the company immediately before you file your lawsuit.

Filing a lawsuit against a former employer will counter HR issues you might encounter while still employed, but be very careful here as well. Any lawsuits against employers can become known by your current employer and mark you as a legal risk. If you’re willing to file a lawsuit against one employer, your current employer’s HR team could then see you as a lawsuit risk. Make sure you fully understand these risks before going up against a former employer for employment violations.

Gaslighting itself isn’t necessarily something that can justify a lawsuit on its own. If it’s part of a pervasive corporate culture endorsed at all levels of management, it could be considered a hostile workplace. In this case, you may have legal recourse against your employer, depending on what they may have done and how pervasive the behavior while employed. You’ll want to educate yourself regarding what is and isn’t a hostile workplace before considering such a lawsuit against an employer. You should also consult with a lawyer for your specific situation. Even then, if you do find that it is considered hostile, you’ll still want to consider such a lawsuit carefully. If your litigation finds its way back to your current employer, you may find yourself in an untenable situation with your current job.

Basically, if you do file a lawsuit against a previous employer, you should keep that information as private as humanly possible. Do not discuss the lawsuit with anyone at your current company no matter how much you may want to. If you have mutual friends between both companies, this may not be possible. Consider this situation carefully before filing such a lawsuit. Note that you may not even know that mutual friends exist until your litigation information is disclosed to your current employer’s HR team.

As with most industries, HR staff members comprise a reasonably small circle of individuals even in large metroplexes. There’s a high probability that at least one person knows another person between two large corporations, particularly if they’re in the same line of business. Always be cautious and never discuss any pending litigation except with your lawyer.

Corporate Culture

Unfortunately, corporate cultures are laid in stone by the founders and the current management team. Sometimes corporate cultures, while seeming to be positive and well meaning, can easily turn sour by corporate corruption. Again, you won’t know the exact extent of your company’s corporate culture until you’ve been working at a company for at least 5 months. Sometimes it takes much longer. Sometimes it requires listening carefully to your CEO’s comments at internal company meetings.

Gaslighting is one of those things that shouldn’t ever be endorsed as part of corporate culture, but it is a behavior that can be misconstrued by pathological individuals based on corporate ideals and is also shaped by management team meetings. These are management meetings where the upper management meets with key individuals to evaluate their weekly contributions to and assess performance for the company. Many times, the face the CEO puts on shows a cheery and charismatic attitude when in public. When behind closed doors, this same CEO becomes a vulture, picking and cutting at each manager’s weaknesses systematically and ruthlessly… many times using rude, crude, crass, yet flowery, condescending language. They might make inappropriate sexual comments. They might even gaslight.

As a result, these bosses who are regularly subjected to these kinds of hostile C-Team interactions can learn that this is the way they also should manage their own teams, particularly managers who don’t have good people skills and who must lead by example. Yet, they know that such flowery, condescending language would get them in hot water with HR and employment law, so they adopt other compensating mechanisms such as gaslighting and outright lying… behaviors that aren’t easily caught or reported, behaviors that can be easily dismissed as innocuous.

As a result, rough and rugged CEOs who lead using a whip-and-chain approach teach their underlings the value of whips and chains instead of managing by positive examples. This can lead borderline personalities to interpret this whip-and-chain approach as the corporate culture to adopt when managing their own staff.

While this explains the root cause behind some manager’s reasons to gaslight, it can never excuse this behavior. In fact, nothing excuses unprofessional behavior. Unfortunately, far too many bosses are promoted beyond their capacity to lead. These managers may be knowledgeable in their own job skills, but many managers have no training in management and have no people skills at all. Instead of learning by training (because many companies don’t offer such people training), they must learn by example. They turn to the CEO to show them the “example”, even if that example is entirely misguided.

Unfortunately, far too many companies do not value people skills as part of their management team’s qualifications. Instead, they look for people who can kiss butts appropriately and deliver results, regardless of what that takes. Meaning, if gaslighting is the means by which that manager delivers results, then the upper management is perfectly happy to look the other way using “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. I agree, it’s a horrible practice… but there it is.

Overall

As a non-management team member, your options are limited if you find your manager is gaslighting you. On other other hand, if you find a peer regularly gaslighting you to get ahead, you should report this pathological behavior to both your manager and your HR team. If you perform peer evaluations of those individuals, then you should report this behavior on those peer evaluations.

If the behavior goes beyond a single person and extends pervasively to the organization as a whole, then this is a corporate culture toxicity. It may also signal a hostile workplace situation. At that point, you may want to consider a new job and, if the behavior is particularly egregious (and illegal) across the company, file a hostile workplace lawsuit against that employer. Personally, if a company is toxic, I leave and let them wallow in their own filth. I then write a scathing review on Glassdoor and leave it at that. Filing lawsuits are costly and even if successful, don’t always fix the root cause of corporate toxicity, let alone gaslighting… which isn’t even considered a problem needing resolution by most companies. Even if you win a lawsuit, you won’t necessarily make that company a better place. Consider lawsuits as a strategy only if you’re trying to get money out of that company you feel has wronged you.

↩︎

Workplace Crime: Should I talk to human resources?

Posted in best practices, business, Employment by commorancy on August 10, 2018

fingerprintI’m being harassed by a manager, should I talk to human resources? Let’s explore.

Sexual Assault in the Workplace

I’ll lead with this one right up front as it’s front and center news and part of the #metoo movement. While this tends to be more common for females than males, both genders can experience this problem in the workplace. What should you do if you’re groped in the workplace in an inappropriate way? The first question you’re probably asking is, “Should I contact human resources?”

The answer is a resounding, NO. Do not contact the human resources team and try to complain there first. In fact, unless you’re a manager in the organization, you should entirely avoid complaining to human resources. Why? Let’s explore deeper.

Human Resources works for Management

This is an important concept to understand about corporate business. The HR team works for the management team, not the employees. Many people have a misconception that the HR team is an advocate group for the employee. This is entirely false. The HR team members, no matter how friendly they may appear, are not and will never be an employee advocate. Only you can be your own advocate (along with any attorney you hire). Your employer’s HR team looks out for #1, which is the business itself and the management team.

If the activity you experienced is sexual misconduct and resulted in bruises, marks or injury, then visit a hospital and take photos of the injuries first. Call 911 if necessary. If situation involves rape, then you’ll need to have the hospital perform a rape kit. When you are able and out of immediate danger, you should call the police and file a police report against the person describing what happened to you and by whom within the police report. Always ensure you are out of immediate danger before contacting anyone.

Next, find a lawyer who can represent you in this matter. If the lawyer finds merit in a lawsuit against the accused (or your company), it’s up to you to decide or not to proceed with the case. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you understand the consequences and the monetary costs of pressing such legal action, particularly against managers and particularly against high paid executives and your employer.

Once you have filed both a police report and you have a lawyer, only then should you involve the human resources team and give them whatever information that your lawyer deems appropriate to give them. Remember, only your lawyer is your advocate. The human resources team represents the company’s interests, not yours. Even then, you should only contact your company’s human resources team after discussing this strategy with your lawyer.

The human resources team’s responsibility is always to find reasons to discredit you and sweep the event under the rug. Once a police report is filed and you have a lawyer, the HR team can no longer play the protect-the-company game as easily because the police are now involved. The HR team is not law enforcement, but they always want to avoid lawsuits at all costs. They exist to make sure the company’s image remains clean and friendly. If it gets publicized that staff are being sexually assaulted in their workplace, their hiring efforts will cease. No one will want to work at a company that wilfully puts employees into harm’s way while on the job. No, it is in HR’s best interest to ensure an employee making an accusation is at best discredited and at worst terminated. HR may or may not terminate the accused depending on the position held within the company and depending on the accusation and against whom.

For example, if the person being accused of sexual misconduct is a manager, director, VP or C-level exec, it’s almost certain the accusing employee will be targeted for termination. The accused will likely remain at the company. As I said, it’s important to understand that the HR team’s obligation to the company is to protect the management team and the company against lawsuits and protect the company’s image that might interfere with hiring efforts. They also don’t have to play fair to do this… which is why termination may be a very real outcome for whistleblowing such activities within a company.

Targeted for Termination

While whistleblowers have protection when working in government jobs, no such protections exist for private corporations. If you whistleblow as an employee of a private corporation, the company is well within their rights to terminate your employment with or without cause. This is particularly true if your employment is considered AT-WILL. Of course, you can also sue the company for wrongful termination. The HR team is well aware of this position as well.

To avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit, the management team will likely sideline you into a position where you cannot succeed. This will then force you to perform badly and force management to put you onto a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Because you have no way to succeed on this PIP, you’ll fail at all of the success goals while on the PIP and, at the end of the improvement period, you will be ushered to the door. This is a common strategy to get rid of troublemakers and avoid wrongful termination lawsuits. Because they followed the PIP plan to the letter and have documented it at every step, this is the company’s insurance policy against wrongful termination lawsuits.

If you whistleblow and end up on a PIP, you’re being groomed for termination. You should take this as a huge red flag to move on. Put your resume out there the day you find out you have been put on a PIP. Don’t wait. Don’t assume things will work out.

Previous Employer Lawsuits

If you quit your offending employer and find a new job, you should keep any previous employer litigation information confidential. Do not disclose this to your new employer. First, it’s not their business. Second, if they find out you’re suing a previous employer, that could become contentious with your new company. They may feel threatened that you could take legal action against them. Don’t inform them of any pending legal action.

Don’t discuss it with co-workers. Don’t discuss it with your manager. Simply, don’t discuss it. Only discuss it with your lawyer. If you need to take off work for a legal meeting with your attorney or with the case, simply tell your employer that you have a personal matter that you need to discuss with your attorney and leave it at that. If they press you on the legal matter, just explain to them that due to pending litigation, you can’t discuss the case.

Termination and Lawsuits

If you’re terminated from the offending company, you may be asked to sign legal documents stating you won’t sue the company or that you’ll agree to arbitration. Simply ignore the documents and don’t sign them. The company cannot withhold your pay as extortion for signing those documents. If they try this, this is illegal and you can sue them for withholding your earned pay. A CEO can even be personally jailed for willfully withholding your pay even if it was someone else in the organization who made that decision. Your company must pay you the hours you worked regardless of what you sign going out the door.

Also, being terminated doesn’t absolve the company from any legal wrongdoing. If you have a pending lawsuit against the company, being terminated doesn’t change the status of that pending lawsuit. You are still free to pursue any lawsuits you have open. In fact, being able to document termination in a retaliatory way may even strengthen your lawsuit.

If you signed an arbitration agreement as part of your hiring package with the company (which you should never do), then you’ll have to discuss this situation with your lawyer to find your best avenue for litigation.

Guilt, Lawsuits and your Career

If you witness or you become a part of an illegal activity in the workplace (i.e., sexual misconduct), it is on you to determine how you want to handle it. You can do nothing and let it drop or you can take it to the police. It’s your choice. Too many companies get away with far too much. If you witness or experience anything illegal while on the job, you should report it to the police and consider a lawsuit only on your attorney’s advice.

As I said above, if you attempt to go to HR first and ask them to address your concern,  you will likely find you are being accused, sidelined and treated as the criminal, not the person who performed the misconduct. Why?

The HR team and its management is hired by the CEO and executive team. The HR manager likely reports directly to the CEO or the CFO. As a result, they take marching orders from their boss. If an employee makes an allegation against a manager or above, the CEO will want to quash this as quickly and as quietly as possible without investigation. To do this, the HR team will state they are investigating, but instead they will begin watching you, the employee who made the report closely. Even the tiniest slip or mistake will be blown way out of proportion and, you, the accuser be reprimanded. This may lead to a PIP as described above or possible immediate termination.

Basically, if you reach out to the HR team for help, you may find that it is you who are now the target against the ire of the company. Unfortunately, once the executive team paints a target on the back of an employee, it’s only a matter of time before the accuser is gone.

Throw Away Employees

Unfortunately, corporate business is cutthroat about making money and ensuring that that outcome continues. CEOs and the executive team will stop at nothing to make sure business continues as usual. The executive team is not your friend at any company. They are your boss. As a boss, they will do whatever it takes to make sure their business succeeds, regardless of what that means to you.

The only employee in any organization considered important enough to keep on the payroll is the CEO. All else are expendable… and this is especially true of troublemakers. By making an accusation of sexual misconduct against anyone, you may be labeled a troublemaker in your personnel file. If your position is easily replaced, you’ll soon be gone and they’ll fill it with someone else.

For this reason, if you’re alleging sexual misconduct, you have to make sure to legally document everything including physical evidence of it. The only way to do that is contact the police. Then, hire a lawyer. Only a person whom you are paying can help you to bring justice. The HR team has no incentive to bring justice on your behalf as they are not paid by you. The HR team has every incentive to ignore you and maintain status-quo because they are paid by and take orders from management.

Illegal Activities

Such activities are not limited to sexual misconduct. It also includes embezzlement, money laundering, insider trading, cooking the books, theft, vandalism and any other willful act by an officer of the company. If you witness any of these, you should still file a police report and then talk to a lawyer.

Skip talking to the HR team as they will only cast suspicion on you, try to turn it around on you and/or target you for termination. It is their job to kill these problems as quickly and as quietly as possible using any means necessary. Being able to get rid of problems quietly is the difference between a good and a great HR team. Don’t ever think the HR team is on your side as an employee.

HR Perks and Employee Happiness

This goes hand in hand with all of the above. Unless you’re on the management team, the HR team is not your advocate. Yes, HR is there to keep the employees happy, but only on their terms. When a non-management employee brings a problem to the attention of HR, watch your back. This means, never disclose your internal company problems to an HR team member. Sure, you can be friendly and sociable and polite, but always keep the HR team at arm’s length when discussing personal or job related matters. This also means you need to know whom is married to whom in your organization. You don’t want to vent a bunch of personal issues to a co-worker only to find out they are married to the  HR manager or an HR employee at your company. Word gets around fast in HR.

As an example, if your company offers company paid counseling as a perk, you should avoid using it. Instead, you should find your own personal counselor and pay them for those services yourself. If you disclose anything to a company paid counselor which could be misconstrued as a problem for the company, the HR team may be able to obtain this information outside of any doctor-patient privilege. Because of this, this could give the HR team ammo to terminate your employment. Always be very, very cautious when using such company sponsored counseling services. When the company is paying the bill, they may have made legal arrangements to obtain information that an employee might disclose.

This information can also be kept in your employment file and potentially used against you should the need arise. Careful what you say, particularly to company paid counseling services and to random folks around the office. Because the walls have ears, even discussing this kind of stuff during lunchtime in the break room could be overheard by someone on the HR team. It’s simpler not to discuss issues of sexual misconduct at all when on your company’s property.

Cell Phones and Employment

If your company supplies you with a cell phone for business purposes, never use it for personal reasons or to discuss personal matters. Because the company owns the equipment, they can install whatever they want on the device and potentially record and listen to your conversations. Only ever discuss these kinds of matters on a phone you own and fully control.

Because many employers now allow using your own phone device for work purposes, never relinquish your phone to the IT team or install company apps or mail on your phone. For example, installing an Exchange mail connector in Apple’s Mail app on iOS allows your company to not only set up restrictions on your phone device, preventing you from using certain functions or installing certain apps, they can also modify the device to their own will… up to and including wiping your phone entirely of data. Yes, installation of the Exchange connector to a corporate Exchange mail server hands over this level of control of your device to your employer!

Never install a company Exchange connector on Apple’s Mail app. Instead, install the Outlook app and only use it. The Outlook app does not have this level of permission to control your phone that Apple’s Mail app has and, thus, cannot modify your phone or put your phone at risk of being wiped. Better, don’t use your personal phone for company business. Request the company provide you with a phone if they need that level of control over the phone device. If they refuse the request, that’s their problem. The employer can call you and text you on your device, but that’s as far as you should let them go with your personal phone. If they provide you with a company phone, then they can set it up however they wish.

Managers and HR versus Employee

Yes, the management team and HR will gang up on you. As an employee, the HR team always takes the word of a manager over the word of the employee. This is fact. There is no such thing as justice or equality in corporate business. The HR team represents the management team without question. If, for example, you accuse a manager of sexual misconduct and that manager tells HR that the accuser made it all up, that’s where the accusation ends. Worse, the manager can then retaliate against you through the HR team’s blessing. There will be no further investigation nor will your accusation receive any further review. However, your work efforts might find undue scrutiny, micromanagement and manager meddling. If you press the point, the HR team will likely begin the sidelining and termination process at the manager’s request.

Even if the HR team requests such complaints come forward, never assume that submitting your complaint to the HR team will result in any satisfactory outcome for you. It won’t. Instead, you will need to rely on the legal system to work for you. This is the reason you should make a police report as soon after the incident as possible, preferably the same day. Visit a hospital if you are injured so they can medically help you and document your injuries. Then, find a lawyer who specializes in whatever you witnessed or experienced and talk to them about your case. If you have been assaulted or raped in the workplace, you should visit the RAINN web site or call RAINN at 1-800.656.HOPE to find out what to do next.

If you choose to try to reach out to the HR team and find that it all backfires on you, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Disclaimer: None of this article is intended to be construed as legal advice. If you have legal questions, you should contact an attorney near you who specializes in the crimes you have witnessed or experienced. If you are a victim of sexual assault and/or rape in the workplace, visit RAINN to find out what to do.

↩︎

Unlimited Vacation: Blessing or Curse?

Posted in best practices, business, vacation by commorancy on July 23, 2018

I don’t usually get into discussing workplace stuff because it’s relatively boring. However, Unlimited Vacation is one perk that is really, really needs discussion. Let’s explore.

Perks and Jobs

I get it. I understand why companies offer perks. They have to offer perks for talent acquisition reasons such as:

  1. Companies must keep up with competition — If a company doesn’t keep up with what other companies are offering, they lose talent during recruiting
  2. Companies must offer perks that seem inviting — Again, this is a talent acquisition feather-in-the-cap sort of thing. It’s something the HR team can cross off the checklist of things to entice candidates
  3. Companies must offer perks that are inexpensive — Companies don’t want to give away the farm to offer a specific perk

What kinds of perks can you typically find in tech companies? You find perks like the following:

  1. A stocked kitchen — This includes soda, coffee, tea, milk / cream and then for food, this can include fruit, nuts, chips and cereal
  2. Bagel Friday — This perk includes donuts and bagels on Friday
  3. Lunches — Some companies offer subsidized and/or free lunches one or several days of the week

Those are all food related, however, other perks include:

  1. Day Care or reimbursement
  2. Commute expenses
  3. Free parking
  4. Tuition Reimbursement (job related)
  5. Training / certifications (job related)
  6. Paid sick days
  7. Paid vacation
  8. 401k
  9. ESPP (if public company)
  10. Company holidays

These are the HR type of benefits that many companies offer. Many of these have a real dollar based cost to the business. However, there’s a new perk that seems great, but really isn’t for several reasons. That perk is ….

Unlimited Vacation

This ‘perk’ (and I use this term loosely) is now becoming popular in businesses. Why? Because it doesn’t cost the business anything to implement and may actually save the company some money (or so companies think). On paper, the idea seems enticing, in reality it’s a pointless benefit to employees and actually encourages more employees to take vacation which may hinder productivity and deadlines.

Why is this benefit so bad? This benefit is pointless because there is no way any employee can actually use it in its unlimited capacity. If you were to try, you’d be fired and walked from the building. I don’t know of any business that doesn’t require approval for vacation from a manager. Even if you could request excessive amounts of vacation, it’s unlikely your manager would approve it. But, within reason, you can request time off and here’s where it begins to break down for employers.

The only people who can even use this benefit as unlimited are those who are in management positions, who don’t have to report their own vacation usage. In other words, subordinates won’t be able to use it, but managers will (and they will use it frequently).

This is one of those perks that will be abused by those in charge. Those not in charge will be penalized whenever they attempt to use it in any unlimited way.

Vacation Time

In general, asking for vacation time off is tricky. It must always be coordinated with ongoing projects, team commitments (i.e., on-call), other team member time off and holidays and requires manager approval. Even people who end up out sick can interrupt or force rescheduling of vacation time off.

Don’t be tricked by this perk, it doesn’t make vacation time off any more accessible and, in fact it is entirely designed entirely for …

Ripping off Employees

There are two fundamental problems with Unlimited Vacation. The first problem is that the benefit (ahem) is being implemented as a cost saving measure to rip off employees when they leave a company (and is designed to appear to save the company many thousands of dollars). This issue really only affects long term employees. You know, the ones who have devoted several years to your business. But now, you’re going to give them the finger on the way out the door? Smart.

With standard paid time off (PTO), you are allotted a certain amount of hours that accrue over time. Let’s say for every year of service that you complete, you will accrue up to 1 week off (with a maximum of 2 weeks that can be held in total). After 2 years of service, you’ll have those 2 weeks accrued, assuming you never take time off. If you leave the company after 2 years without taking any vacation, you’ll be paid out your accrued PTO balance for the 2 weeks that you didn’t take. That’s two weeks worth of salary you’ll receive upon exit, in addition to any other salary owed.

With Unlimited Vacation, that vacation payday goes away. Since it’s now unlimited, there’s no more time accrued and no more PTO to pay out for any employee. The only thing that payroll needs to keep track of is how much time you’ve used solely for timekeeping purposes. When you exit a company offering Unlimited Vacation, you won’t receive any vacation pay because they are no longer accruing any. This means that when you were formerly paid 2 weeks of PTO, with Unlimited Vacation you now get $0.

Unlimited Vacation is then an HR cost-cutting measure entirely designed to screw exiting long term employees over so companies no longer need to make any vacation payouts.

Here’s where the second problem begins. As employees realize this screw-over job and to make up for the lack of accrued time, this means employees will need to take as much vacation as is allowed without getting fired in the process. Since you can’t accrue, you now need to use.

Accrued PTO vs Unlimited Vacation

Businesses don’t seem to understand the ramifications of this perk on its workforce. The first ramification is that employees with accrued PTO no longer get the exit vacation payday. This is significant when exiting your employer and moving on. But, this only occurs on a termination event. Employees should remain cognizant of this event, but even more employers should remain cognizant of how this will change how vacation is used. As an employer, it means you need to understand how to retain your workforce better.

Here’s the second problem in a nutshell. PTO encourages employees to stockpile their vacation and rarely take it. Up to 50% of the workforce does this. However, Unlimited Vacation encourages employees to take as much vacation as they can legitimately get away with.

With PTO, employees might work and work and work with little time off. With UV, more employees will take more time off, thus working less. This is something that HR and management will need to understand about this benefit. If the point is to get people to take more time off, then UV is the answer. If you’re trying to encourage people to stay at their desks and work, PTO is the answer… but has the end payout.

It really all depends on how you want your staff to work. If you want people at their desks not taking time off, then PTO is your answer. If you want people constantly taking time off, then UV is your answer. Sure, UV saves you on the exit payments, but at the cost of people taking more time off throughout the year. It does one more thing.

The up to 50% of employees who rarely take time off will change their work ethic to include significantly more time off. Since they know can no longer stockpile and get that payday when leaving, they will now be encouraged to take time off to make up for that loss of money. This means that a workforce that you relied on to work excessive hours to make ends meet will no longer continue that trend in your business.

If you think that people will continue the same type of vacation behaviors they used with PTO when on UV, you’re mistaken. People will use what they are owed. If they are encouraged to take time off, they will whenever possible. This means that for the folks who rarely (if ever) took PTO days will now begin scheduling more time off throughout the year. That’s not because it’s unlimited, but because they understand that they no longer get the payout at the end. This compromise ensures they get the equivalent benefit and that means scheduling and taking time off. There’s entirely nothing the HR team can do about this change in vacation usage behavior when on the Unlimited Vacation plan.

It’s a use-it-or-lose it situation. If you never take vacation with PTO, you can justify it with the payout at the end. If you never take vacation with UV, not only do you get no time off, you get no payout at the end. It’s simple math. No payout at the end means using more vacation time to get the equivalent benefit. Employees aren’t stupid and they will realize this paradigm shift and compensate accordingly.

This outcome will happen. You can even watch your employees behaviors after you convert from a PTO to UV system. I guarantee, your employees will notice, understand and modify their vacation schedule accordingly. This may impact your business, so caveat emptor.

Good or Bad?

That’s for each company to decide. More employees taking more vacation is good for the employee and their morale. But, it may negatively impact the productivity of your business. With PTO, people not taking vacation means more productivity. With UV and more vacation time off, this likely means less productivity. It might mean a happier and less stressed workforce, but it likely also means less work getting done.

I’m not saying any individual will take excessive time off. No, I’m not saying that at all. That’s simply not possible. What I am saying is that if 40-50% of your workforce never takes time off under a PTO plan, you will likely find that number reduces to less than 10% of your workforce not taking time off with a UV system. That’s a significant amount more people taking time off throughout the year than on a PTO system.

If you delude yourself into thinking employees who don’t take vacation time off will continue a PTO trend on a UV plan, your HR team is very much mistaken. I can also guarantee that if managers deny vacation requests to keep employees at their desks, this too will backfire and your talent will leave. This will become a catch-22 problem in your business.

As an employer, you spend a lot of money hiring talent. You also spend a lot of money holding onto that talent. Why jeopardize all of that with a policy like UV that won’t really do what what you hoped it would? On paper, it seems like a great cost saving policy. In practicality, it will likely backfire on your company’s productivity efforts and cost you more money in the end, but not for the reasons you think.

Conversion Process

You may find that if you are converting from some other vacation system to unlimited that people do continue their traditional habits. However, that will change over time both as turnover happens and as people realize their loss of PTO payout. Once employees wake up to the realities of the new system, the amount of employees requesting and taking vacation will increase.

A UV policy will make it more difficult on the managers to juggle vacation timing, fairness and who can take what when. This will increase manager load by taking them away from managing projects and deadlines to managing the minutiae of juggling even more staff vacations.

Hourly Employees versus Salary Employees

This type of perk works best in salaried environments. With hourly employees, trying to offer a perk like Unlimited Vacation won’t really work well. This is particularly true of employees working in a call center or similar type environments. With salaried tech workers, this kind of benefit may work for you with the caveats that have been thus far described.

Startup or Established Company

If you run a startup, you should stay away from the Unlimited Vacation policy entirely. It won’t do your business any favors. Sure, it’s more cost effective, but only when long term employees leave. If you’re a startup, you won’t have long term employees to worry about for a while. Your duty is to entice your talent to stay, not leave. If you have a problem with a revolving door of staff, then you have a much bigger problem than a benefit like Unlimited Vacation. The problem for a startup is that a UV plan encourages more people to take vacation more often rather than stockpiling it for use later. Again, more workload for a manager to juggle vacation schedules rather than handling projects and deadlines.

In a startup, a UV policy means more people taking time off. This isn’t what you want when you need all hands on deck to keep the business afloat. You want most people at their desks and readily available at all times. When people take vacation, they expect to be cut off from their job including no email, no pager and no contact. And, rightly it should be. If you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation. PTO plans encourage staff to accrue now and take time off much, much later, perhaps years later. With a UV plan, this  encourages more people to take vacation regularly. Not exactly what you need in a startup. PTO works for a startup because employees stockpile and then once the business is off the ground years later, they will then take their vacations. This is why PTOs are actually better for a startup than a perk like UV.

If your business is established with 500 or more employees, then implementing an Unlimited Vacation policy might be worthwhile depending. With larger numbers of staff, there’s more opportunity for someone to cover an employee who’s out. This means if your 40%-50% staff who are stockpiling decide to start taking vacation in increasing numbers, you can withstand this change in your workforce behavior.

It’s up to you to decide how to operate your business, but PTO vs UV is one perk you should thoroughly investigate and then weigh all pros and cons before implementing it. Don’t do it simply because it might (or might not) save you some cash when employees exit. Do it because it’s the right plan for your business’s current operating goals.

 

How not to run a business (Part 4) — Performance Evaluations

Posted in business, Employment by commorancy on July 7, 2012

Do employee performance evaluations help or hurt your business? Are evaluations even necessary? The HR team may say, “Yes!”. But, that’s mostly because they have a vested interest in keeping their jobs. If evaluations are performed incorrectly (and the majority of the time they are), they can hurt your company and your relationship with your employees. Employee evaluations are also always negative experiences, so even this aspect can hurt your relationship with your employees. Let’s explore why?

Don’t let your Human Resources staff design the employee evaluations

If you absolutely must create and implement the tired ‘once-a-year’ evaluation system, then at least make sure you do it correctly. That is, assuming there is a ‘correct’ way to do this tired old thing. Employee evaluations should be designed by someone who is knowledgeable with writing evaluations and who has written them in the past. Using a service company like SuccessFactors or ADP to deploy your evaluations is fine, but is not required. Someone must still be tasked with designing the questions asked of the employee during the evaluation process.

Make sure your designer fully understands what is being asked of employees during the process, how it pertains to your business and most importantly, that the questions pertain to job performance and not to nebulous concepts like ‘core values’. Make sure the evaluation asks questions related to an employee’s actual job performance. The questions should also be relevant to all job roles within the company. Evaluations that target the sales teams with questions surrounding ‘customer interactions’ won’t apply to technical roles that have no customer facing aspects. Either unique multiple evaluations that apply to each department, or keep the questions generic enough that all job roles fit the questions.

Don’t ‘stack’ your evaluations

By stacking, this means that you should not mandate your managers give a certain number of excellent, good and poor reviews (i.e., ‘stacking’ the reviews towards certain employees — a form of favoritism). If your managers happens to have very good teams, stacking means that one or more than one of these individuals will end up with poor performance reviews, even though they performed well. Stacking is the best way to lose good employee talent.

Your staff has spent a lot of time and effort trying to locate the right employees for each job. With one stale (and lopsided) internal process, you may effectively, but inadvertently walk some employees to the door. Employees won’t stay where they feel they are not being treated fairly even while putting out high quality work. If a good employee is targeted with a bad review, don’t underestimate their intelligence to notice your stacked evaluation system and write about it on places like Glassdoor. Keep in mind that this is especially important for technical roles where talent can be extremely hard to find. Note, there are under-performers, but a once-a-year evaluation process is not likely to find many of them. Only can on-going, regular evaluation processes will find under-performers. Even more than this, only the manager can find underperformers via weekly one-on-one sessions, going through each employee’s work output.

Let your evaluation chips fall where they may. If a team ends up all with excellent reviews, so be it. Don’t try to manipulate some down because you feel the need to reduce cost of living wages. This comes back to paying your employees what they are worth. Note, this assumes that reviews will be tied to merit increases. Don’t assume that employees don’t know that the evaluations are stacked when you stack. That’s not only a condescending view, it way underestimates the intelligence if your workforce. If you’re thinking of decoupling evaluations from merit increases, see the next Don’t.

Don’t decouple evaluations from some form of merit increase

If you decouple employee evaluations from merit increases, you decouple the reason for employees to do evaluations. The question then becomes, “What’s the point in doing this?” If there’s any question surrounding the employee evaluation process, then your employees will not be motivated to participate. This also means that your evaluations will be worthless in the end. And, the employees will also know this. By tying the evaluations to merit cost of living increases, this ensures that all employees are motivated to participate properly in the process. However, keeping it tied to merit also means that this could lead to ‘stacking’. Avoid ‘stacking’ like the plague. If you really want to keep your employees on board, then let the evaluations remain truthful.

Additionally, when you decouple merit increases from the evaluation process, why have evaluations at all? Managers should be regularly evaluating their employees for work output and effectiveness. If they aren’t, then you have a bigger manager problem on your hands. If there’s no real reason to do evaluations, expect some employees to opt-out of the review process. If they chose to opt-out, let them. Forcing them to participate only leads to forced evaluations which may ultimately have them leave the company anyway and provide you with nothing of value.

Don’t require employees to rate their own performance numerically

Numerical or ‘star’ ratings are worthless. Numbers say nothing about the employee’s work ethic or performance. They are a failed attempt at trying to ‘rate’ an individual. The trouble is, if you artificially make the scale low by saying ‘No one is a 5″ on a scale of 1 to 5, then you have made the scale effectively 1-4. Then make the scale 1-4 and not 1-5. If you are using a scale of 1-5, then use the entire scale. If a person is a 5, then they are a 5. They are not a 4. This is similar to stacking. Do not artificially limit the use of something within the evaluation to make high performers appear lower than they are. This is counter productive and unnecessary and makes the employee feel as though they are under-appreciated. If that’s the intent, then it’s a job well done. However, it may lead to employee loss. Again, you spent all that time recruiting the talent, don’t squander that time, effort and money spent. Rating employees and artificially capping the scale is yet another visible employee negative.

Don’t do employee performance evaluations simply because you can

Employee evaluations are important for the manager and the employee to discuss performance issues and where performance can be improved. That’s the point in this process. It is not about anything other than how to get the manager and the employee on the same work page. Running this through multiple managers and multiple staff all the way up the chain to the CEO is pointless. Not only is it a severe time waster for those above the employee’s manager, it’s also a privacy issue that, for some reason, upper management and the human resources department alike think they should be privy to. In reality, any performance issues are between the manager and the employee. Ultimately, because of upper management prying eyes, any actual performance issues are not likely to present on an evaluation because it might actually become a hostile workplace or HR violation issue. Most evaluations are highly sanitized by both the employee and by the manager. Any real work issues are discussed in private between the manager and the employee. They are never included on HR based performance evaluations.

For example, an employee with poor hygiene and who is causing issues around the office could cause some severe HR legal issues if this information is placed onto a written employee evaluation. Yet, it is a performance issue. How do you document this without causing potential legal issues? This is the problem with once-a-year employee evaluations. Employee evaluations tend not to document the types of issues which result in legal issues for a company. These types of issues are sanitized from evaluations for this reason. This also means that company wide evaluations are by their very nature not completely accurate. If they’re not accurate, why do them?

Let the managers handle all performance issues internally. If the process needs documentation, then have the manager do so. But, do so privately. Airing the dirty laundry for all to see is ripe for both hostile workplace issues and could document potential legal issues that could arise should the employee leave as a result of a documented performance issue. Note that anything written and placed into the employee file can be come legal fodder should employee legal issues arise. If the evaluation process documents an illegal activity within the company, then your business is at risk. Leading to…

Don’t sanitize employee evaluations after-the-fact

If there is something written on an employee evaluation that puts your business at legal risk, don’t sanitize the evaluation or destroy it after the fact. This will make things far worse for your business. Instead, leave it as it is. If it’s a legal risk, you can defend yourself in court even if it’s in the document. Removing it from the document or removing the entire document is far more problematic legally than leaving it there. Note, if your employee has to write any part of the evaluation, they can make a copy for themselves. If an employee unknowingly describes an illegal business activity on the evaluation, your business is at risk no matter if someone in your organization deletes or sanitizes it. If you are concerned that some illegal activity could appear on an employee evaluation, it may be smarter not to do evaluations. An employee may keep a version of their copy for their records. You can’t easily expunge an employee’s personal records.

Don’t expect much productivity out of your employees during evaluation week

Employee evaluations kill at least a week of productivity time for every employee in the company. Instead of focusing on their job at hand, they are focusing on paperwork that is not related to their job. Expect that evaluations will lose about a week of productivity just for the paperwork portion alone and turn it into non-productive time. If your employees’ work time is important to you, you need to understand that during the evaluation process, far less output than normal will get done. This means you should choose a slow time of the year to perform evaluations. The more you ask of the employee to do on the evaluation forms, the less actual work they get done. Be careful with this process as it can lead to a lot of lost productivity. Note, there will also be a week or two of aftermath from the evaluation process where employees will reflect, brood and be distracted as a result of the outcome of their evaluation with their manager. Without any upside to doing the evaluation, this process simply leaves that bad taste to fester. Which leads to…

Don’t expect sunshine and rainbows

Employee evaluations are by their very nature negative job experiences. Always. Evaluations never give glowing job performance reviews. They are always there to show all of the flaws and weaknesses of the employee and make sure they feel like crap for at least a week or two following completion of the evaluation. This can negatively impact productivity following the completion of the evaluation. You need to understand that this process is by its very nature a negative job experience. It is never a positive experience. The only positive is a merit increase, if it comes. For an employee’s suffering through another performance evaluation, the upside is that employees will hopefully see a higher paycheck. If you decouple merit increase (as stated above), the employee evaluation process becomes a completely negative experience without any upside benefit to the employee. In fact, there is very little if any upside benefit to the company, either. This project then becomes an exercise in futility. If you really want to make your employees feel like crap for several weeks, this is the way to do it.

Think twice before implementing an evaluation system solely because you think it’s necessary. If employees feel that their evaluation is unfair (many will), expect a number of people to walk away from the company. Expect those that stay to underperform for at least a week following any evaluation. Expect some employees to brood and eventually leave months after their review. You will also need to accept some employee departures as a result. Other employees will realize the exercise in futility and seek a job elsewhere. Some my realize the unfairness of the ‘stacking’ and try to find an employer is more fair about this process. Make sure you are well aware of the full ramifications of an evaluation system before you implement it.

Make sure employees get some kind of positive benefit after the evaluation is complete (preferably a merit increase). If you’re planning to make your employees suffer through this negative job experience, then you need to be prepared to offer some sunshine and rainbows to your employees at the end to make the process go down easier. As Mary Poppins once said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” . You need to find that spoonful of sugar… and I don’t mean literally, either (don’t be funny and put a sugar cube on their desks).

Note that the evaluation process should never get in the way of actual work. Yet, it does. It interjects itself between the manager and the employee in a way that can drive a wedge between the employee and the company. A wedge that might otherwise not be there were sleeping dogs left lying, as it were. Employee evaluations can open a Pandora’s box with some individuals, so be careful with this process.

Do think up a better way than the traditional performance review system

If you can come up with a new improved performance system that works better than the old, stale, negative system, then by all means implement it in your company. Such a system would do wonders for making this process much more smooth. Unfortunately, I do not believe such a thing exists. In reality, having monthly one-on-ones between the employee and manager should suffice as an ongoing performance review system. It’s far less negative than the once-a-year evaluation which is mostly pointless. Do away with the once-a-year evaluation system and implement an ongoing manager and employee relationship building system that keeps the employee far more on track than a once-a-year system which really benefits no-one.

Employee evaluations can both help and hurt your company at the same time. Evaluations can open up problems that may not be necessary for an employee to perform their job properly and at the same time, it always ends up as a negative experience for all involved. If you really enjoy running your employees through the ringer once a year, the stale old evaluation process is the way to do it. Worse, though, is that because it’s a once-a-year event, it doesn’t really serve much purpose unless it is tied to a merit increase. If it’s not tied to a merit increase, this is a fruitless exercise. This is part of the reason many companies no longer do one-a-year evaluations.

Basically, do not feel compelled to run evaluations simply because you think you need them. Think twice before implementing these tired vehicles when they don’t really benefit anyone. If you must set up a performance evaluation system, then conduct it once a month between the manager and the employee. Let them discuss active projects, what’s going on today and focus on current performance issues. Having an on-going regular relevant performance evaluation system is much more productive to job performance today and ends up as a much more relaxed and positive experience. Out with the old and in with the new.

Don’t run an evaluation for an employee with 3 or more managers in 6 months

This one is pretty self-explanatory. However, it should be said that if an employee gets a new manager 2 months before the evaluation process is set to begin, the employee has no hope of a fair evaluation. If the employee’s old manager is still part of the organization, then enlist that manager to complete that employee’s evaluation. If the old manager is no longer part of the organization, then skip this employee’s evaluation.

An employee cannot be properly evaluated with a new manager having 2 or less months of service with that employee. Employees under this circumstance should also have the ability to opt-out of the evaluation process entirely. If they can’t get a fair, impartial evaluation for 6 to 12 months of service that year from their current manager, then the employee shouldn’t be obligated to submit an evaluation. I’ll also point out that change in management team is not the employee’s responsibility. Unfairly penalizing an employee’s yearly performance review because of management changes is not the fault of the employee. It’s the fault of your management team.

Unless there has been at least one manager who has managed that employee for a minimum of 6 continuous months of the year, evaluations shouldn’t be performed for that employee.

Part 3 | Chapter Index | Part 5

%d bloggers like this: